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Understanding How Your Dog Learns

Dogs that are part of a pack learn through social learning. They use their senses to help them understand the world around them, how it works and how they fit into the situation. Dogs use their senses of sense of smell, vision and verbal voice to learn and communicate with others.

Pet parents who train their dogs to adhere to certain boundaries within the household, respond to verbal and visual commands and guide their dog through a variety of obedience or agility training, find that dogs learn a certain way. Using visual signals in combination with hand signals during a training session will highly benefit the pet parent or handler.

Dogs also learn by trial and error. They will continue to repeat certain behavior until they are guided not to continue the action. This guidance comes from the pet parent. If your dog keeps chewing on your favorite shoes, they will not understand it is wrong until you remove the shoes and replace it with a pet safe toy. This guides your dog to the understanding that chewing on toys is the only acceptable behavior in this case. Most dogs will continue trying to chew on the shoes until they realize after much repetition from their pet parent, that their toy is the object they should chew on. When your dog exhibits good behavior or accomplishes reaching training goals, reward their behavior with a tasty treat or verbal praise and a gentle pat on the head. This helps them understand this good behavior results in a positive reaction and they will continue to repeat the good behavior.

Unrewarded behavior will disappear. Many pet parents see their dog chewing on their shoes and begin to verbally yell at him. Unfortunately, any type of response, good or bad for an attention seeking dog will make the dog feel rewarded. For example, if your dog is seeking your attention and your too busy cooking dinner for your family, he knows your favorite pair of shoes will definitely get him some wanted attention from you, even though it is negative. To a dog, you are still giving him a reward, because you are paying attention to him and that is what he was ultimately seeking. Dogs will stop repeating a specific behavior when it does not produce a desired reward.

Dogs are keen problem solvers. Have you ever seen a dog that is in a fenced in yard? If a dog wants to escape the yard, they will try a variety of solutions until they reach the one that works best. In a dogs mind, their problem is they may feel trapped in the yard. They work on solving the issue. A common way for dogs to escape is for them to dig holes under the fence, crawl under them and escape their entrapment. Many pet parents are wise to this situation and put chicken wire under the fence and deep into the ground to prevent the dog from digging for his freedom. Once a dog sees that this option of escape is not going to work, his problem solving skills kick-in and he suddenly sees a different option to try, and realizes that his dog house is located closely to the fence. He will try a new option, this time, crawling onto the top of his dog house and jumping over the fence. Ultimately, he solved his problem. The best thing for pet parents to do is to outsmart your pup and cover all possibilities. Some dogs are incredibly intelligent and will take you off guard at their imaginative problem solving skills.

Visual and verbal communication is key to teaching your dog to learn in his own unique way. Understanding how your dog learns things will help pet parents find productive ways to train their intelligent dogs.

Photo credit: Minneapolis Institute of Arts/Flickr

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Please consult the services of a Professional Dog Trainer, Behaviorist or Veterinarian before implementing any of the advice contained on this site.